Japan faces balancing act over touchy subject of virus clusters among foreign nationals

Japan Times -- Nov 23
Yasutoshi Nishimura — the nation’s COVID-19 point man — paused momentarily at one point during a recent news conference, seemingly debating internally how best to broach discussion of virus clusters among foreign residents, a subject that could be a lightning rod for criticism and claims of xenophobia if handled poorly.

Not all foreign residents, the minister leading the government’s coronavirus response was careful to note, should be blamed for the spread of the virus. No prejudice or discrimination should be tolerated whatsoever, he said.

The caution with which Nishimura brought up the subject at the Nov. 12 briefing spoke volumes about its sensitivity, underlining the delicate balance the government is trying to strike between stopping foreign communities from becoming virus hot spots and preventing discrimination against them.

And some factors thought to be responsible for the recent emergence of these clusters, such as poor living conditions, large social gatherings and difficulties getting access to medicine, are not necessarily exclusive to foreign communities.

While the government is headed in the right direction with its proclaimed goal of ramping up multilingual services and improving medical access, experts say it must be careful not to contribute to the misguided narrative that foreign residents are by nature higher-risk — let alone sloppier about basic hygiene protocols — than native Japanese.

Cultures and habits

Officials, for their part, haven’t focused on foreign communities without good cause: Dozens of clusters centering on non-Japanese residents have popped up across the nation over the past few months, from international students cooped up in shared apartments to families gathering for meals.

On Nov. 13, Nishimura gently urged in a series of multilingual tweets coinciding with the start of Tihar, an annual festival celebrated in Nepal, that Nepalese communities in Japan abide by measures or prevent the spread of COVID-19 as they go about observing their tradition.

The government has said it will take into account factors typical of many foreign residents, including their penchant for hugging friends and family and the lack of a mask-wearing culture prior to the pandemic. Language barriers, it claimed, hamper their access to information on “basic anti-infection measures,” such as avoiding the so-called Three C’s of closed spaces, crowded spaces and close-contact settings. It also asserted that they “don’t have the habit” of visiting medical institutions even when they feel ill.

- Japan Times